[dropcap]I[/dropcap]’ve always been one to stand out in a crowd. Not because I’m beautiful or tall or loud or all that interesting, but because I’m fat. At times, I’ve been the widest person in the room. Of course now that I’ve lost 50 pounds and dropped two clothes sizes, there are generally a few other people who are larger than I am. Inwardly, I sigh with relief. Maybe this time, I won’t be known as the fattest girl at the party.
As long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with my weight. It wasn’t that I ate a great deal, or even that I ate a lot of junk food. I’ve always been a fairly active person, and even more so as a child when I would constantly romp about looking for buried pirates’ treasure in my backyard, turn over rocks to find snakes or toads, or ride my bike which I pretended was actually a horse. Yet no matter what I did, as I grew, the weight just kept climbing.
In fifth grade, I decided to go on my first diet and started to attend Weight Watchers meetings with my mother. Somewhere I still have the ribbon I got for losing my first 10 pounds, but eventually, I gave up. It’s hard to fight the bullies on the playground and not even get so much as a Twinkie for effort. So, despite my best efforts, I entered sixth grade-middle school-as a fat, preteen girl. Not only that, I was in a racially diverse school and in the gifted class. Yup, fat, smart, and white. I should have just made my own “kick me” signs and taped them to my back. At least then I would have had a choice.
By ninth grade, I was taken out of public schools and plopped into a private, Christian high school. During the first week of school, I was thrilled to learn that the hottest guy in the world not only went to school, but he rode on my bus. A few weeks later, I foolishly told another student about my undying love for “Jesse.” The next day when the bus reached full capacity, this student announced to everyone, including my true love, that I wanted to “do” him. The rest of the ride was a blur, but I remember looking back hopefully at Jesse, who was laughing hysterically. Another kid on the bus said, “Whatever, no one would want to do a fat girl like you. You ain’t never gonna get any.” Purity firmly in place, I assured everyone that I did not want to “do” Jesse. The hot tears of humiliation came later when I rushed into the bathroom before homeroom and cried my little broken heart out.
As a teenager, my main goal in life was to get a boyfriend. Of course, I only wanted to hug, hold hands, cuddle, and maybe if he was the right one, kiss! It wasn’t until my senior year I found a guy who wanted to do all that with me…well, minus the kiss. Even then, I decided he was too needy and dumped him at Creation East, the Christian music festival I invited him to attend with my youth group. In reality, I was dumping him before he had the chance to dump me. And he would eventually dump me, I thought, because I’m fat.
But it’s not only my relationships that have suffered because I’m fat. No, there’s so much more: like my health, my activities, my family, and my finances. Sometimes I can’t do the things I want to do because I’m fat: like go horseback riding (well, I probably can now), fit in a roller coaster at an amusement park, or wear the jacket of the guy I like when I’m cold because he wears a smaller size than I do. When I order food at a restaurant, I almost look around at the people I’m with and at the waiter to make sure that what I ordered was appropriate for someone as big as me. Or I actually meet a guy that I really like and I think might really like me, but I blow him off before I give our relationship a chance because I don’t want to ultimately be rejected.
While many Americans are overweight, we are far from a fat-loving culture. A couple of years ago, some survey said that Americans would rather lose their job than gain 65 pounds. Besides the obvious health concerns that come from carrying excess weight, the truth is that being fat is not seen as an aesthetically pleasing trait to have. A lot of people would do almost anything to keep from getting fat including starving themselves, taking dangerous diet aids, or working out obsessively.
At a time when teenagers are questioning who they are and what they were created to do, with hormones running wild and emotions even wilder, imagine the added complication of being fat. A fat kid is often the last one picked when it comes to choosing sides for team sports or the one who is forced to do the entire group project or the one who gets tripped and bullied in the hallways at school. While there are other groups who are also ostracized for how they look, what they believe, or who they are, those who are fat are one of the few who generally think they deserve to be treated horribly.
Think about the main groups that help a Christian teenager form his or her identity: society in general, church, family, and peers.
Society: Being fat is ugly. Fat people have often been characterized as stupid, lazy, and gluttonous. As if fat people do nothing but sit around all day on their couches eating potato chips and watching “Jerry Springer!” Fortunately, teenagers now have role models who are fat and intelligent and not lazy, but they probably eat too much!
And the fat jokes? They’re one of the last acceptable cultural stereotypes. While many are careful not to use any racial slurs, they think nothing of dehumanizing another with a fat joke, a comment, or even with their own thoughts. Plus, all fat people are desperate losers who can’t get a date. How many sitcoms have one of their main characters go on a blind date with a fat person, make a bunch of silly jokes about that person being fat, but discover in the end that the fat person is actually a nice human being?
It’s even worse to be a fat woman. At least fat men can get a hot chick to go out with them-think of all those sitcom dads, balding men, and guys with expanding waistlines. Yet a fat woman is depicted as desperate for love, usually dresses poorly in a hideous floral moo-moo, and has about eighteen cats. Oh, and she eats about five microwave meals in one sitting.
The change in culture can only come with us. Think about the characters in the movies you show your youth group or in the skits that your kids perform. Consider the jokes you tell or what you laugh at when you watch TV. Remember, fat people are just that, they are people.
Church: Being fat is a sin. Not only was I made fun of more by the kids at youth group than at school, there was always the underlying idea that I was a very sinful girl because I was fat. Every time I got made fun of, felt bad, had spit wads thrown at me, or called a pig, it was God reigning down His judgment on my sinful, gluttonous ways, or so I thought. Unlike adulterers, alcoholics, and other sinners, I wore my horrible transgression on me like a big scarlet letter.
Our high school Bible teacher even told us that there was a guy in the Bible who was killed for being fat. Eglon, the Moabite king, was a very fat man who was killed by the Benjamite, Ehud. Ehud, seeking to release the Israelites from the oppression of the Moabites, sought out a private meeting with the king, whereupon Ehud plunged a sword into Eglon’s belly. Judges 3:22 says, “Ehud did not pull the sword out and the fat closed in over it.” Imagine the visual description a Bible teacher could give when talking about that verse, the uproarious laughter from the class, and the fat girl in the third row whose cheeks were flush with shame. It wasn’t until years later I learned that he died because he was sinful, not because he was fat.
Your job as a youth worker is to encourage and love your students, regardless of weight. Sure there are going to be some obstacles your larger students will face, but don’t add shame to the weight of the load they are already bearing. While overeating is a sin issue, you can address the sin without addressing the weight, at least at first. Think about talking about idols of the heart or what we value instead of God. Chances are that your student already knows about his or her sinful behavior and needs to know that you still value him or her.
Also, think about your fat students when planning games and activities. Sometimes they won’t want to play games because they are made fun of or they won’t do certain activities, such as a high ropes course, because they are afraid they will break the ropes. Don’t force your student to do activities, and maybe if you ask why your student doesn’t want to do something, he or she just may give you an honest answer. Suddenly, a whole new dialogue can open that would allow your student to talk about his or her struggles with being fat.
Family: We love you, but you could lose a few pounds. One time my now deceased grandparents told me that they would give me $100 if I lost 100 pounds. Besides the fact that losing 100 pounds would have made me look like a Holocaust survivor at the time, I just couldn’t do it. I remember asking them if they would instead give me a dollar for each pound I lost. Another time, my grandfather chided me by asking me if I was going to dress up as a pumpkin for Halloween since I was already round like one.
Until I moved in with my grandparents when I was 20, I barely visited them because they never failed to criticize me for being fat. But if I managed to lose 10 pounds, I was heralded as though I was Homecoming Queen. It didn’t matter that I earned good grades, spent my Friday nights teaching inner city kids about the Bible, joined the drama club, and showed a certain knack for writing; I was still fat. In the few years before their deaths, they mellowed out a bit, but all of a sudden they would zing me with another “fat lecture.” I just wanted to know they loved me and were proud of me, but I didn’t hear that until they were both on their respective death beds. Those were the words I needed, and they were told to me far too late.
Youth workers, encourage the families of your students to love them unconditionally. If they can’t see past the layers of fat, show the family the amazing qualities that your student possesses. Suggest counseling for your student and his or her family. Amazingly, a lot of relatives who criticize their fat children are or have been fat themselves. They are simply trying to “keep their child from pain” by inflicting pain and shame themselves, which roughly amounts to verbal abuse.
Peers: Being fat makes me different. No one likes to stand out in the crowd, at least, for negative reasons, especially teenagers. In their longing to become individuals, it is still so important to be a part of the whole. Yet a fat teenager survives often by becoming the comedian, the do-gooder, the smarty, or the outcast.
Often fat boys become the comedians, instead making fun of themselves before others can do so. Some of these boys will even turn on other students who are fat and in an ironic twist of fate. Watch out for your fat boys with strong personalities because they just might be your youth group’s biggest (and widest) bullies. There are, of course, fat female comedians, but they are less likely to become bullies.
Do-gooders are generally overly helpful individuals who seek to “make up” for the fact they are fat by being really good at everything else. Somehow in the cosmic scales that weigh human worth, do-gooders feel that by doing more, they can somehow maintain equality with their thinner counterparts.
Smarties are smart kids who are fat. Not unlike do-gooders, they throw themselves into school and achievement. They exercise their minds because they feel their bodies are doomed anyway. Often, smarties are also do-gooders.
The outcasts are the “other” kids that either cannot be defined or choose not to be defined. They might be the science-fiction kids that like to zone out on “Babylon 5,” compulsive video game players, or the quiet wallflowers that seem to go unnoticed. These teens have coped by learning to be alone, isolated by their own view of their fat.
God: You are my beautiful child. The bottom line is that whether a person is fat or thin, his or her identity is firmly planted in God. The very image of deity, your teenagers need to know that they were knitted together in their mother’s womb, crafted by the hand of God, and are His valued children. The most important piece to the puzzle of a teenager’s identity-anyone’s identity-is knowing who he or she is in Christ.
If being fat is something that people hate about themselves, why don’t they just change it? Because change is hard. While an alcoholic can go without booze, a smoker without cigarettes, a nymphomaniac without sex, a fat person cannot go without food. While he or she can change the amount of food taken in and vary what is eaten, there is still a battle to be fought at least three times a day. Between meals, there’s the gnawing hunger, the fear that people still won’t like you if you’re thin, and the quandary of exercise. It’s hard to go to the gym when you’re fat because so many people at the gym are in shape. Not only that, but carrying around so much weight makes it difficult to use the equipment. Fat people are experts in heavy lifting.
Also, fat people also carry around an awful lot of emotional baggage. Each fat person has a unique story: how he or she became fat. Some stories are of learned behavior passed from parent to child, many are filled with emotional turmoil and heartbreak, and still others are failures and lost dreams. Often by seeking a skilled counselor, teenagers and adults who are fighting the battle of the bulge can begin to take off pounds as they release the emotional baggage holding them hostage.
Often the talking heads on the news talk of the obesity epidemic in America about how people are dying of obesity-related illnesses, how fat people are taxing the health care system, and how we all need to lose weight. Most fat people know they should lose weight and are acutely aware that they are fat, but what they fail to realize is that their value is not defined by a number on a scale. Their worth is defined by a God who sent His Son to die for all of mankind-even for the fat people.
Amy Sondova is a writer specializing in media writing, including interviews and reviews, as well as blogging. Having interviewed over 30 of the top musicians, writers, and speakers in the Christian media, Amy has also written countless columns, reviews, and articles on various topics including mental illness, self-injury, working with teenagers, and Christianity. As well as holding a B.A. in communications, Amy also has a M.A. in biblical counseling, and has worked as a professional therapist. You can visit Amy’s blog at http://www.amysondova.com.